Everyone knows arming kids and sending them to war is a bad thing. The success of Beasts of No Nation comes not by reiterating this sentiment, but in the way it brings to life the reality lived by far too many. Adapting Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel of the same name, director/writer Cary Fukunaga hammers home the situation in all its horror. It’s not easy viewing, nor should it be.
There’s a cutesy feel to the opening exchanges that belies what’s to follow. Young Agu (Abraham Attah) lives in a war-torn West African country, but he seems safe in a protected buffer zone. Running around with friends and his girl obsessed older brother, he gets mixed up in the kind of pranks that ruin many an attempt to portray life in a culture and environment very different to the comfort we have in the west. Acting out old TV shows for the amusement of soldiers and participating in burping contests, it seems to be a different film to that expected. Until Fukunaga pulls back the covers to reveal its bleak heart.
When the storm clouds come, they arrive fast and completely. Government forces occupy Agu’s village, gunning down anyone they deem a rebel, a very loosely applied term. Aided by booming sound design, shots reverberate through the dark corners unarmed civilians hide in. Sudden shocks echo out even louder; a hand grenade tossed towards fleeing men, a tank destroying buildings. Horror builds gradually until Agu’s father and brother are dead, and he’s left alone in the bush.
Having once hit this piercing note of dread, Fukunaga never lets it die down. Agu stumbles across the rebel forces, where he’s taken in by the Commandant (Idris Elba), a man of transparent charm, and unveiled threat. The passage from untested child to eager warrior unfolds through the kind of montage scenes beloved in Hollywood productions. Blink and you might mistake this for any other military film. It’s not. Fukunaga juxtaposes army action with children playing together, gradually reducing the time free to be kids. The point is clear – this is a childhood lost, and not one that can be returned easily.
There is no light further in either. Agu is in a tunnel that never seems to end. He has to kill his first man – machete to the head – gets hooked on drugs, and mixed up in rape. He starts to forget his old life, losing sight of a future. There’s a vague plan to make it back to his mother who escaped before the village was taken. This dream is but one of the many deaths surrounding him.
Attah is incredibly impressive in his first feature, carrying all the hard parts of the film, often alone. He manages to be an impish kid, shell-shocked victim and weary warrior, convincing at every turn. A lesser actor would have reduced the impact significantly. Attah ensures this isn’t a problem. Elba also impresses, finally finding a role to showcase on film what he’s already proved in TV. His Commandant is a complex figure, driven by zealous madness and ambition. The final act moves the focus onto him as he seeks approval from his own boss that remains elusively out of reach.
There are a few niggles that diminish it slightly. Agu has an unnecessary voiceover that often repeats what we’ve just witnessed. It’s as if Fukunaga lost nerve in his own images. Even visually, he sometimes reaches for the obvious when he’s already delivered the message. There are rivers of blood and blunt murals that add nothing not already there. These are only minor problems, certainly not enough to ruin a strong start to the Golden Lion race. Agu’s journey into the heart of darkness is a long and hard one. The darkness won’t be leaving his heart any time soon.
Director: Cary Fukunaga
Writers: Cary Fukunaga (screenplay), Uzodinma Iweala (based on the novel by)
Stars: Idris Elba, Ama K. Abebrese, Abraham Attah
Runtime: 131 mins